20 Best TV Spin-Offs - Rolling Stone
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20 Best TV Spin-Offs

From Mork to Maude, these were the shows that proved the second time’s a charm

Kelsey Grammer in ‘Frasier’, Robin Williams in ‘Mork and Mindy’ and Michael Dorn in ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation.'

Kelsey Grammer in ‘Frasier’, Robin Williams in ‘Mork and Mindy’ and Michael Dorn in ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation.'


We’ve been waiting for months now, anxiously pacing around our living rooms and marking off our calendars — and finally, this Sunday and Monday, we’ll get our first look at the highly anticipated, two-part premiere of the Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul. The question is not whether this prequel series about the misadventures of Walter White’s shady attorney will be better than Breaking — roughly 99 percent of TV shows out there wouldn’t meet that standard, so we’re not going to judge it on that merit. Rather, it’s whether Saul will become one of those shows that sprung from a former TV hit and then went on to achieve small-screen glory on its own.

The landscape is littered with great spin-offs (and, frankly, a good deal of wretched ones as well), so while we wait to see where Vince Gilligan and Bob Odenkirk’s show falls on the spectrum, we’re looking back at the 20 best TV spin-offs of all time. Whether it was taking a supporting character and elevating him of her to star status, or simply continuing to mine a show’s universe for more adventures, these are the ones that set the bar for how to do it right.



Recipe for a successful Doctor Who spin-off: Take one wildly charismatic actor and cast him as a time-tripping bisexual con artist; make the antihero the good doc's companion for a bit; then give the character his own group and his own show, and set them loose hunting aliens around the Whoverse. (If you can make the title an anagram of Doctor Who, all the better.) Even folks who weren't dedicated fans of the long-running British sci-fi staple were down with Captain Jack Harkness (geek sex-symbol John Barrowman) and his men-in-black-style cohorts, with the show becoming a sci-fi-nerd favorite on both sides of the pond. Rumors of a fifth season for the Starz network keep percolating. Our fingers are crossed. DF



From Soap to sitcom: Robert Guillaume's butler was one of several background players weaving in and out of ABC's comic take on soap operas. Suddenly moved from the tempestuous Tate household into the governor's mansion, the character was thrust front and center in a dysfunctional political family — and Guillaume deservedly found himself the star of a hit show. By the end of the seven-season run, Benson would go from servant's quarters to running for political office, which didn't stop him from issuing withering insults or failing to suffer fools gladly. DF


‘The Bionic Woman’

Behind every pricey, partially robotic man, they say, is an equally expensive cyber-lady. Capitalizing on the fervor behind The Six Million Dollar Man, creator Kenneth Johnson decided to give Steve Austin a female counterpart in the form of Jaime Sommers, a tennis pro injured in a skydiving accident. Lindsay Wagner was more than capable of giving Million star Lee Majors a slow-motion run for his money, and not even the eventual romantic crossover, ridiculous additions (she later paired up with a bionic German Shepard) or the lackluster post-series TV movies could erase the memory of how great it was watching Sommers [nnn-nnn-nnn-nahhh] spring into action. DF


‘Trapper John, M.D.’

So whatever happened to Mash's lovable rogue/Hawkeye's best friend "Trapper" John McIntyre after he bid adieu to his cohorts in the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, you ask? He became the chief surgeon at a San Francisco medical facility, that's what. Former Bonanza star Pernell Roberts stepped into the scrubs and gave us a kinder, calmer Trapper, one who tried to teach younger physicians like Gregory Harrison's wild and crazy Dr. George Gates (nickname: Gonzo) how to behave. Not that the older sawbones didn't skirt the rules in the name of good bedside manners, but for seven seasons, this medical drama made a case for bending the system instead of trying to break it. DF


‘The Facts of Life’

It doesn't get better than Mrs. "G." Edna Garrett tended to the needs of the Drummond family in the first two seasons of of Diff’rent Strokes; then Charlotte Rae's housekeeper left Park Avenue for Peekskill, NY, to tend to the needs of students at an uppity all-girls boarding school. The Facts of Life practically offered a template for adolescent female types (where you a Tootie or a Blair? A Jo or a Natalie) while confronting various issues of adolescence and being one of the first TV shows to feature a character (and actress) with cerebral palsy. By the time Miss Garrett opened Edna’s Edibles in Season Five, you could feel the writers straining to come up with new ways to keep everyone together, though the show would get a slight boost in its last two years thanks to an additional cast member: a young actor named George Clooney. CC


‘The Flash’

"It's better to have a good heart than fast legs." To be fair, if you're fighting crime, it helps to have both. Grant Gustin's Barry Allen had made a few appearances on the CW's superhero series Arrow, and as any DC Universe fanatic can tell you, Allen suffers a freak accident that leaves him with the ability to literally run circles around mere mortals. One red costume later, Central City has a new do-gooder in town. Like Arrow, this series nails the feel of a vintage comic book without being cheesy or cheap, and the more classic Flash supervillains it introduces (Captain Boomerang, Pied Piper, Reverse Flash), the speedier it climbs up viewer's must-see lists. DF


‘Law & Order: SVU’

"In the criminal justice system, sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous…[dun dun]." Right from the opening voiceover, it was clear that this addition (the first of many) to the mega-popular police procedural Law & Order franchise was unafraid to tread into salacious, sordid territory. As played by Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay, detectives Elliot Stabler and Olivia Benson spend their days chasing sick bastards all over New York City, all of whom have committed crimes that have been torn from today's headlines. Not only has it outlasted the original, but SVU it has a good chance of breaking L&O's two-decade run as it burns through its 16th season with no sign of stopping any time soon. CC



It boggles the mind that one of animated television's smartest, funniest, most cutting female characters started life as a foil for two numbskull kids with a penchant for vandalism and frog baseball. It didn't take long, however, for Beavis and Butt-head's producers to realize that they had a potential breakout star in this deadpan putdown artist. And as voiced by Tracy Grandstaff, Daria became an idol to a certain disaffected, too-cool-for-school Nineties type, who saw themselves in the bespectacled teen and her partner in contempt, Jane Lane. We're still praying that the joke trailer for a movie version starring Aubrey Plaza will one day become a reality. DF



After breaking Buffy Summers' heart and returning from the one true death, what was left for the centuries-old vampire Angel to do but…move to Los Angeles and become a private detective? The methodone to Buffy's heroin fix, this spin-off to Joss Whedon's groundbreaking girl-power series took a supernaturally noirish approach to life in the City of Angels (get it?) and, after a few seasons, found its own groove as a star vehicle for future Bones star David Boreanaz. Oddly enough, the more BTVS castaways the show would gather, the more it started to find its own voice, and its final season plotline involving a law firm suggested there was still more ground to cover even as the show, unlike its lead character, finally laid down in the grave. DF


‘Fernwood 2 Night’

Just as Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was going off the air in the summer of 1977, the show introduced a new resident of Fernwood, Ohio — Barth Gimble, twin brother of Garth Gimble and a budding TV personality. Along with his unctuous sidekick Jerry Hubbard, Barth would host the town's premiere talk show, bringing on guests to recall their UFO sightings and anchoring segments such as "Talk to a Jew." Martin Mull and Fred Willard don't get nearly enough credit as a crack comic duo, and the show's skewering of the format's clichés — made to seem even cheesier by the public-access production values — set the pace for the faux-sincere showbiz parodies and fake late-night programming (see Larry Sanders) that would become a comedy staple in the years to come. DF


‘A Different World’

In 1987, Lisa Bonet's Cosby Show character, Denise Huxtable, was sent off to attend school at Clair and Cliff's alma mater, Hillman College — and her own show. A Different World dealt with social and racial issues facing the students at the historically black college, and was one of the first shows to tackle the HIV/AIDs epidemic. Both Denise, and her enthusiastic and quick-speaking roommate Maggie (played by a young Marisa Tomei) left after the first season; thankfully, the show's supporting characters — Whitley Gilbert, Jaleesa, Coach Walter Oakes and the unforgettable style icon Dwayne Wayne — easily stepped into the spotlight, and kept things buzzing along for another five seasons. CC



Norman Lear needed a female character in All in the Family to act as the antithesis of the sexist Archie Bunker. So he cast the fearsome Bea Arthur as Edith Bunker's cousin, Maude Findlay, for a few episodes — an extended guest spot that eventually led to television's first outright feminist sitcom. Maude would go on to cover topics from plastic surgery to alcoholism, abortion and depression, all in a primetime forum; it would also help give birth to another great spin-off (Good Times) and, by casting Rue McClanahan as Arthur's best friend, laid the groundwork for The Golden Girls. In his recent memoirs, Lear said that "of all of the character I've created…the one who resembles me most is Maude. [She] shares my passions, my social concerns and my politics." CC


‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’

To boldly go where one beloved cult series had gone before: Over two decades after the original Star Trek series died a premature death (and had proven its pop-cultural worth with endless conventions and movies), creator Gene Rodenberry decided to return the franchise to the small screen. The syndicated show may have had a new USS Enterprise, a new captain (Patrick Stewart's indomitable Jean-Luc Picard) and crew, and new villains to battle (the Borg). But TNG, as it was called by fans, had the same wonderfully cosmic-pulpy feel of the original, and helped kick off a slew of other Trek-related series that kept the property as fresh as a Romulan daisy. DF


‘Good Times’

If you wanted your own spin-off, it helped to be the hired help on a sitcom: Florida Evans started out as the maid on Maude before the character was relocated from New York to Chicago and she became the matriarch of one of TV's great working-class families. The show was blessed with the grooviest Seventies theme song this side of Sanford and Son, the benefit of a young, fresh-faced Janet Jackson adding cachet to the later seasons and J.J. Walker's ability to turn "Dy-no-MITE!" into a national catchphrase. Long before Roseanne gave primetime viewers a look at blue-collar America, Norman Lear's comedy showed what life was like living one paycheck at a time, and whether the series was going for laughs or tackling social ills (as in the infamous child abuse episode), it gave you sense that you could make it through temporary lay-offs and easy credit rip-offs so long as you had each other. Ain't we lucky we had it. DF


‘Mork and Mindy’

If The Flintstones could introduce an alien character into the mix (long live the Great Gazoo), why couldn't Happy Days get a little intergalactic as well? The through-the-roof popularity of Mork's first appearance on TV's Fifties nostalgiafest practically demanded he get his own show, and after the series started airing in 1978, you could not escape the sight of people wearing rainbow suspenders or yelling "Shazbot!" It was the public's first introduction to Robin Williams' manic, machine-gunning style of humor, and the role made him a huge star; even when things starting getting ridiculous around the end of the run (Jonathan Winters as a Benjamin Button-ish baby Orkan?), the actor's infectious energy always kept thing moving at warp speed. DF


‘The Jeffersons’

It may have been one of the legions of shows created from All in the Family's spare parts, but this tale of dry-cleaning magnate George Jefferson and his wife, Louise, quickly proved it wasn't Norman Lear-lite; thanks to Sherman Hemsley's ability to play up the character's small-man arrogance (that funky victory walk!) and his chemistry with costar Isabelle Sanford, this sitcom kept movin' on up for 11 seasons. As for the supporting cast's MVP, it'd be a toss-up between Marla Gibbs' wisecracking maid Florence (we'll pretend we don't remember her own short-lived spin-off, Checking In) and Paul Benedict's bumbling Englishman in New York, Harry Bentley — both had the ability to knock you dead with a zinger or a look. Race was certainly a factor in the series, but given Lear's involvement, the fact that social issues weren't used to score ideological points every other episode was surprising. According to the producer, however, that was never the Jeffersons' goal. This time, he wanted to go for laughs over editorializing. Mission accomplished. DF


‘The Colbert Report’

Stephen Colbert had been introducing aspects of "Stephen Colbert" — the poorly informed, conservative pundit who cracked us up for close to a decade — in his regular Daily Show dispatches, which technically makes this a spin-off. What started as a questionable parody of The O'Reilly Report soon became a testament to the power of commitment (Colbert only broke character a few times during 10 seasons on the air) and home to some of the sharpest political satire around. Regular features such as "The Word" and "ThreatDown"  consistently cracked us up; there were nights when the Report ran laps around its sister show. We're still in denial that the boorish blowhard is gone. DF


‘Laverne & Shirley’

Schlemeel, schlemazel, hassenfeffer incorporated! Cindy Williams and Penny Marshall's dynamic duo were such memorable characters that you forget they were originally conceived as little more than one-off dates for Happy Days' Richie Cunningham and Arthur Fonzarelli. Thankfully, Penny's brother — producer Garry Marshall — somehow had the foresight to see there was series potential in the misadventures of these Milwaukee brewery workers, and soon enough, we were all living in Boo-Boo Kitty's world. Think of how many factory accidents have been caused by people trying to replicate the glove-on-the-beer-bottle assembly line trick. Guess how many young Italian kids decided to take dance lessons so they could be like Carmine Ragusa. Try to imagine a world without Lenny and Squiggy. You can't. DF


‘Lou Grant’

He started out presiding over TV news anchors in Minneapolis; he ended up leading a crack team of journalists at a daily paper in L.A. But the biggest transition that Ed Asner's Lou Grant experienced wasn't geographical but tonal — moving from lovably grumpy boss on a sitcom (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) to dead-serious editor on an hour-long drama, tackling sex scandals, human-rights issues and other torn-from-today's-headlines hot topics. The change worked wonders for Asner, who got to show off his chops and become the only actor to win an Emmy in both the Comedy and Drama categories for playing the same character. Before Hill Street Blues came along, this series was considered the highmark of primetime prestige TV. When you wanted thoughtful, compelling storytelling about the what was going on outside your living room, you went to Lou. DF



Imagined as a third corner of a love triangle involving Cheers' Sam Malone and his employee/bantering partner Diane Chambers, Dr. Frasier Crane was everything the show's resident alpha male was not: pompous, cerebral, and a "perfect" match for the braniac barmaid. He eventually evolved from being a stock stuffed shirt to key part of the show, though we wouldn't have picked Crane as a natural for his own sitcom.

So when Cheers' producers announced they were creating a show around Kelsey Grammer's psychiatrist and relocating him to the Pacific Northwest, visions of The Tortellis redux danced through folks' heads. Imagine our surprise, then, when the result turned into what many consider to be one of the greatest network sitcoms of all time — the equivalent of a screwball comedy pleasurably stretched out over 11 seasons. Partnered with his equally pretentious brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce earned every one of his 11 Emmy nominations and four wins), Frasier suddenly blossomed as a character; it's as if this was the show he was meant to be on all along. Throw in theater veteran John Mahoney's crusty ex-cop dad and ex-Benny Hill Show eye candy Jane Leeves as daffy caregiver Daphne, as well as one of the wittiest writers' rooms around, and you had a series that quickly set the bar for small-screen superiority. Just try and find another spin-off worth its weight in tossed salads and scrambled eggs. DF

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